First published in the Sept. 9 print issue of the Outlook Valley Sun.
The La Cañada Flintridge Planning Commission finally voted on the controversial proposed three-story structure at 600 Foothill Blvd., recommending approval of the project — a move that followed hours of deliberation by the panel and comment from numerous members of the public since June.
The commission resumed discussion of the proposal in a virtual special meeting on Sept. 2 and ultimately adopted six resolutions with conditions that advance the project — which would include 47 senior housing units, 12 non-serviced hotel units and 7,600 square feet for office use — to the consent calendar of the panel’s next meeting on Thursday, Sept. 23. The consent calendar is the portion of a municipal meeting that is reserved for items that no longer require serious discussion; the commission is due to vote once more to affirm its approval of the project.
The approvals and recommendations from the panel would then be presented to the City Council, which has the final say on the proposal.
The project, along with any future mixed-use 3 developments, is required to add a dedicated loading area. The applicant plans to widen Foothill Boulevard to create a parking lane that would accommodate the request. A traffic signal will also be implemented on Foothill at Woodleigh Lane to minimize backups and avoid interfering with emergency use of the fire lane.
All five commissioners voted to adopt a declaration that there would be no significant environmental impacts and recommend amendments to the General Plan and Downtown Village Specific Plan that would reclassify the 1.29-acre parcel — the former site of the Christian Science church — from an institutional zone to a new mixed-use 3 zone and set development standards for MU 3 zones.
However, not all agreed on giving a conditional use permit that would allow demolition of the existing structure and parking lot to construct the proposed 77,310-square-foot, mixed-use development. Mike Hazen, who was the lone commissioner to cast a dissenting vote, felt it was best to have the City Council first evaluate the modifications to LCF’s General Plan and zoning before the commission approved such a development.
Hazen, who was also the only commissioner to vote against approval of the tentative tract map that would permit condominium parcels and a density bonus per state law, was concerned that such a large structure might be built and then fail to attract any tenants to the housing units.
“If we’re going to allow something like this to be built in our community and they put it up for sale and nobody buys it, what have we created? I think we have to look at it from a reality of how the public will accept it,” he said.
The city staff supports the project because it would help LCF accommodate the demands of the Regional Housing Needs Assessment, which projects how many new dwellings are needed throughout the state and tells cities how many it should be ready to provide. LCF is expected to show it can provide 612 residential units, though that does not necessarily mean they would be built.
Commission chair Henry Oh said he believes there is a “substantial need for senior housing” in the city “based on our demographics,” and his colleague Mark Kindhouse asserted that such a structure could help alleviate the state’s housing crisis.
Kindhouse also reminded the public of Vision 2030, a goal in the LCF General Plan that was developed by city officials with input from the community and encourages development. One of the objectives in Vision 2030 is to provide “new housing opportunities for senior citizens and families” that are within “mixed-use developments that are close to businesses, health care services, community and recreational facilities and transit.”
“There’s been little to no commercial or residential development along the Foothill corridor aligning to either the spirit or the letter of the law regarding the original planning effort that is called Vision 2030,” said Kindhouse. “And that means one of two things: Either the purpose of the General Plan was unintentionally incorrect or has become outdated, or the plan was intentionally made to stifle development. I tend to believe the former, as I think the planning commissioners and council members who served previously had what is best for La Cañada in their hearts when they made their decisions.”
Commissioner Samir Mehrotra concurred with Kindhouse that a project such as the 600 Foothill proposal is needed in LCF and commended the developer for working with the city and its residents.
“[The developers] have taken a difficult project to a place where it has become reasonable,” he said.
The parcel was purchased by 600 Foothill Owner LP for $4.2 million two years ago. City Councilman Jonathan Curtis has a financial stake in the development of the property and some residents have argued that his involvement represents a conflict of interest. City Manager Mark Alexander previously stated that Curtis has followed the Fair Political Practices Commission’s Political Reform Act by recusing himself from any discussions or decisions on any matters pertaining to the parcel.
Some community members have gone so far as to launch accusations of corruption among city officials, an allegation to which commission vice chair Jeffrey McConnell took offense.
“We are all volunteers who have devoted a significant amount of time to our community, and while I understand it may be a good talking point, I think we lose out on the civility of this community when we bandy around accusations like that,” McConnell said. “Everyone here is coming at this with the best intention and trying to work within the state laws that we have to deal with [and] the local laws that are on the books and trying to find a way for us to move forward with zoning code updates that make sense for this century.”
Though supportive of the project with the conditions in place, McConnell voted against a tree removal permit in an effort to keep a pine tree at the northwest corner of the property. The panel ultimately adopted a resolution approving tree removal with Oh, Kindhouse and Mehrotra voting yes. A city ordinance requires developers to replace each tree, and the proposal includes a plan to have as many as three new trees for every tree replaced.
Applicants Alexandra Hack and Garret Weyand, who live in La Cañada, were pleased with the result and commended the commissioners for their dedication and thoughtfulness in developing standards for a new mixed-use zone over the course of three lengthy meetings.
“It’s a great deal of time to dedicate to one project,” Hack told the Outlook Valley Sun on Wednesday. “I think their approach to a really robust package was a really smart and wise way in processing the entitlement. I 100% agree with the commissioners’ approach to worry about the bigger picture first and worry about the project later.”
Weyand added that what was most pleasing was seeing a unanimous vote in favor of the zoning change because he felt it will encourage more development in the city.
“How do you accomplish the RHNA numbers if you don’t redo the Downtown Village Specific Plan? Can you name one goal that was accomplished [in the city’s General Plan]? You couldn’t,” he said.
Hack and Weyand now must wait for the commission to approve the consent calendar on Sept. 23.